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Composition Theory and Writing to Learn - How Writing Enhances Cognitive Development in the Classroom

Updated on July 14, 2011

As an English teacher, it may appear that a bias is attached to my teaching philosophy: Well of course you want to promote writing! You love words like the rest of those language arts nuts! True, I may have attended writing camp through my Elementary school summers, and currently carry a journal in my purse wherever I go, but teaching writing should not be limited to the English department. Instead, the cognitive benefits associated with the composition process are available to all disciplines. Coupled with the support of theories such as Lev Vygotsky’s theory of development, a teacher can harness the alluded to benefits to help promote the development of the whole child.

What is Writing?

First, it is important to define writing. Although writing can take on many forms (creative, expository, editorial, epistle etc.) and can be accomplished in various modes (pen to paper, finger to keyboard), writing in the classroom should be a public act, be interpretive, and situated (Bloom). Writing should be a shared process amongst students, take the students into a higher order thinking pattern, and always come from a specific point of view. In addition, Gary Olson has compiled the “10 Essentials to Process Writing”, a set of the beliefs held for decades regarding the key points to effectively compose. They can be found below.

1. “Writing is an activity, an act composed of a variety of activities

2. The activities in writing are typically recursive, rather than linear.

3. Writing is, first and foremost, a social activity.

4. The act of writing can be a means of learning and discovery.

5. Experienced writers are often aware of audience, purpose, and context

6. Experienced writers spend considerable time on invention and revision

7. Effective writing instruction allows students to practice these activities.

8. Such instruction includes ample opportunity for peer review

9. Effective instructors grade student work not only on the finished product but on the efforts involved in the writing process

10. Successful composition instruction entails finding appropriate occasions to intervene in each student’s writing process” (Bloom 32).

Benefits and Goals of Writing

Before diving into how educational theory supports writing in the classroom, this section will evaluate the basic benefits and goals of writing in the classroom. The ultimate goal is to push students from being beginner writers to expert writers. To do so, a teacher must help students become aware of the methods used to become an effective writer in the field.

Every classroom, depending on the discipline, will approach writing in a different way. While in science class, students should be thinking and writing like scientists; in math class, thinking and writing like mathematicians. Students first need to acquire the terms specific to the discipline. Then, in acts of writing, students can use these terms in authentic tasks. They will think in terms of the discipline and how to interact with the world with regards to the field.

By giving students the chance to write in authentic environments, students will show their affinity to a specific discipline. If for example, a student is successful in writing scientific reports, a teacher may be able to encourage a student towards pursuing a science career. Teachers will be able to see if a student has the “it factor” for future real world success in a discipline.

While writing, students will be setting goals, planning, searching their memories, problem solving, evaluating, and diagnosing (Bereiter). Through these activities associated with writing, students will be able to enter a “new stage of thinking” by understanding the material on a deeper level (Bazerman 279).

Through a process referred to as “cognitive refiguration”, the act of writing can even change and transform previous knowledge, or even past biases. Students will be able to create new thoughts related to old information. For example, you may know all of the things you must accomplish in a specific day, but as soon as you put them on paper in a “To Do” list, you are able to look at the tasks ahead of you in a different light. It becomes an organized list that you can track and see your accomplishments.

The same is for writing in a classroom. A student may have thoughts about a subject or topic, but as soon as they spend the time to write it down, it becomes a conscious act of synthesis that can be referred back to. The material takes on a whole other form.

Composition Theory and Its Critics

“Composition theory” has become a buzzword representing the range of beliefs that writing in the classroom can help promote cognitive development. There are critics, such as Robert Mahon, who say that all the hype around composition theory is essentially “endlessly reinventing those wheels while slacking off on the basics” (Mahon). He calls for a return to the basics of teaching students how to be clear, concise, and focused in their writing, as opposed to all the bells and whistles that certain professional development conferences and methods attached to composition theory offer.

I agree with Mahon and Thoreau, who said “expression shall be vital and natural”. However, there can still be much benefit from supporting a teaching method with highly acclaimed theorists. Composition theory is a melding of cognitive science and linguistic theory. In the classroom it is often referred to as “Writing to Learn”, yet it is more than a basic post-reading activity to keep students busy.

As the next section will show, using writing in the classroom can aid in a student’s development and teachers can create learners for life.

Jean Piaget
Jean Piaget | Source

Which Theorist Should We Follow?

As it is understood, there are three basic schools of thought when it comes to learning and development.Jean Piaget believed that development had to come before a child could learn.On the other hand, Lev Vygotsky proposed that learning comes before development.There is still another belief that learning and development happen at the same time.

To look at composition theory through Piaget’s eyes would make writing in the classroom nothing more than identifying, rehearsing, organizing, and reinforcing.If a child is already developed to the fullest at his appropriate stage, then writing to learn would make no impact on his growth.It would be impossible for a child to enter new realms of thinking.

If one were to look at writing to learn through the view that learning happens at the same time as development, writing becomes more effective.Students will be able to focus on genre specific writing, and small waves of development could occur from small bits of learning.They would be able to acquire a few new skills and accumulate bits of knowledge in their writing process.Not bad.

However, in order to gain the most benefit from writing, one should approach the task through the eyes of Vygotsky.When learning happens before development, “learning prepares the learner for new stages of development” (Bazerman 284).Therefore, writing goes beyond the rote recitation of what was learned, but acts as a way to improve the whole child.Students can reflect, perceive, and gain new perspectives as they write.

As alluded to earlier, writing can influence and restructure prior knowledge.With regards to his theory of the zone of proximal development (ZPD), students learn first socially and then internalize the information.In other words, the material is first interpersonal, and becomes intrapersonal.It’s just like how a child learns a language: first the child learns through social interaction and language is attached to the world in which she lives, and then it becomes privatized, most seen through private speech.

Following this trend of language acquisition, students can learn information first socially, and in the broader classroom setting, and then through writing it can be internalized.Thus, the child is pushed further in his or her development.

Passionate Writing That Is Genre Specific!

Especially for non-English teachers, the task of teaching students how to write can appear to be a daunting one. Have no fear! Teaching composition is much more than the grammar and mechanics of a piece of literature. In fact, that should be the lowest of concerns.

As mentioned earlier, writing should be genre specific. If mathematicians don’t usually write narratives, then don’t teach your math students how to write in that mode. The important thing is that students are producing authentic texts and are writing what they are passionate about. As Oliver Goldsmith said, “write what you think regardless of the critics” (May 418). Teachers should direct students in how to be eloquent based on the subject matter, not necessarily the nitty-gritty specifics of a composition, and prompt them to write earnestly and truthfully.

Like riding a bike, students should learn by doing. Although the rules of how to ride a bike are crucial to success (peddling forward, the physics of balance, how to shift gears etc.), these rules quickly become subconscious, and are usually taught via direct instruction only when the student is having a problem. The same principle applies to teaching writing. Students will need modeling and scaffolding, yes, but they will learn the best through practice and learning from their mistakes via conferencing.

It is important to introduce writing from the very beginning, practicing sentence and paragraph formation, as opposed to one culminating writing assignment at the end of the quarter. Children are naturally more skilled than adults at expressing what is on their minds, so even in the elementary grades, teachers should teach to “[preserve] and [nurture] the early genius” (Bereiter). By harnessing a child’s already existing ability to express his mind by giving him the opportunity to write, the future writing success, and thus, developmental success, will be encouraged.

Of course, teachers should never feel alone in the process, as they can use valuable resources such as the librarians and the school’s writing center, if available.

What to Write?

So what is it that students should be writing? The possibilities are seemingly endless! Any activity can be adapted to fit the appropriate grade level, but make sure it always reflects an authentic, genre specific task.

Students can write science reports with legitimate hypotheses and conclusions, reviews of their peers’ works, keep journals, write grants, produce mathematical theories, pen editorials, express themselves via creative pieces, etc. The important thing is that the skills taught in writing exercises can be transferred to the real world context.

When a specific stylistic aspect needs to be taught, feel free to use excerpts (both good and bad examples) from your own students’ writing. Students will quickly take ownership of the task if their work is being acknowledged and validated.

Regardless of what you choose to call it, composition theory needs to be embraced within every classroom. As students use their content knowledge and enter into the writing process, the content becomes alive and meaningful on a whole other level. By allowing students the opportunity to write in the context of the real world field of study, the teacher then opens up the opportunity for the student to be successful later in life. We don’t all have to have the desire to go to writing camp when we’re 10 years old, but all should consciously be aware of how to use the principles necessary to become expert writers.

Works Cited and Additional Reading

Bazerman, Charles. “Genre and Cognitive Development: Beyond Writing to Learn.” Genre in a Changing World. Ed. Charles Bazerman, Adair Bonini, and Debora Figueiredo. Fort Collins, Colorado: The WAC Clearinghouse and Parlor Press, 2009. P 279-294. Colorado State. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Bereiter, Carl and Marlene Scardamalia. “Preface.” The Psychology of Written Composition. Cornell University. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Bloom, Lynn Z. “The Great Paradigm Shift and Its Legacy for the Twenty-First Century.” Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and Change. Eds. Lynn Bloom, Donald Daiker, and Edward White. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1996. Google Books. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Lunsford, Andrea A. “Cognitive Development and the Basic Writer.” College English. 41.1 (1979). 38-46. JSTOR. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

Mahon, Robert Lee. “A Curmudgeon Leery of Composition Theory.” Community College Week. 12.24 (2000): 4-7. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov 2010.

May, James E. “Goldsmith’s Theory of Composition: ‘my heart dictates the whole.’” Papers on Language and Literature. 15.4 (1979). 418-22. Academic Search Complete. Web. 15 Nov 2010.


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